North Korea: Danger and Opportunity for Park Geun-hye’s Presidency

South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s speech to the Joint Session of the United States Congress will be a great opportunity to signal that the Korean peninsula is headed toward a new era of inter-Korean cooperation, test the rough waters with policies for a breakthrough on the North Korea policy conundrum and dispel much of the jitteriness that has surrounded Korea since the beginning of the year. More importantly, her message can be an invitation to North Korea to grasp her outstretched hand and prove to the international community that it’s not an empty gesture but that she means business.

I am not President Park’s advisor, nor am I her speechwriter, but as an American citizen living in South Korea, here is what I would like her to say in Washington:

Mr. Speaker of House, Mr. President of the Senate, and Distinguished Members of the US Congress,

Thank you for this personal honor to address a Joint Session of the US Congress at the beginning of my term as President of South Korea. I want to outline my administration’s policy towards North Korea, a country that has recently received extraordinary media coverage. It is unnecessary to underline the urgency of addressing the dangerous situation on the Korean peninsula. With every crisis comes an opportunity for statesmanship and leadership. I urge you and President Obama to work with me to dissipate the existing stormy clouds so that the promise of a new era may dawn again on Korea, known to many as the land of morning calm.

I am the daughter of a mother who died of a North Korean assassin’s bullet on August 15, 1974. My parents were in a theatre leading a national celebration of our liberation from Japanese rule when she was killed. My mother was yet another victim of the tragedy of the division of Korea that has spawned such enmity, deep-seated mistrust and ideological rivalry and has led to diplomatic confrontation, military skirmishes and brinksmanship. The division of Korea has claimed millions of victims in the Korean War, many of whom died, and many more still cut off from separated families across the DMZ in an uneasy truce.

The 1953 Armistice was negotiated by the United Nations and therefore the world body has a special obligation with respect to the future evolution of the Korean peninsula. However, the destiny of Korea is preeminently in the hands of the Korean people. Neither South nor North can unilaterally decide the fate of our nation. Both are protagonists, and could become partners in shaping a Korea in which cooperation, non-aggression, and exchanges of all forms are the norm rather than the exception. We must discharge this sacred duty ourselves as Koreans. No outsider can or should perform this role or stand in our way.

The nuclear development of North Korea has been a special focus of international attention since the 1994 Agreed Framework negotiations. I have reiterated that North Korea must abide by established agreements. I am aware of the firm position of the United States on Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Dismantlement (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear program. Indeed, in the Joint Declaration on Denuclearization signed by the two Koreas in January 1992, both sides agreed not to test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons; to use nuclear energy solely for peaceful purposes; and not to possess facilities for nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment. This remains a sound basis for the two Koreas to proceed.

In recent months, North Korea’s missile tests have heightened tensions around Korea dramatically. South Korea, Japan and the United States have responded to these provocations with nearly unprecedented military operations to show our preparedness, demonstrating determined unity to respond swiftly and effectively if necessary. North Korea must not doubt our resolve to stand together as allies nor test our military superiority and ability to launch a punishing retaliation.

Let me turn to key concerns about the current impasse in the North Korea situation.

First, should conflict break out, South Korea would suffer immediate and massive casualties because North Korea possesses potent conventional weaponry. The 27,000 American soldiers in South Korea today would be immediately drawn into the ensuing battle. Our nations remember vividly the enormous bloodshed caused by the Korean War. South Koreans certainly do not wish to experience a repeat of such destruction. The next time around, with ever more lethal weapons of mass destruction possessed by all of the direct and potential parties to the conflict, the military conflagration could indeed ignite what North Korea has described as a “sea of fire.” This is unthinkable and we must not even contemplate such a thing.

That South Korea, the economic miracle on the Han River, could emerge from the ashes of the Korean War was indeed amazing. It attests to the genius and fortitude of my people made possible by your generosity and assistance in guaranteeing that we can develop economically in the security of the ROK-US military alliance. We have transformed ourselves from being a poor beneficiary nation to a donor country in the Organization of Economic Cooperation in Development (OECD). Yet absent a durable peace this incredible accomplishment is ephemeral and in a real sense superficial. The prosperity that we now enjoy perches on a very fragile foundation of military insecurity.

Second, our military insecurity is aggravated by high-stakes great power rivalries in East Asia. In territorial disputes over islands throughout the regional waters, powerful nations are locked in tense claims of sovereignty. War ships and fighter planes have been dispatched to the islands as they circle and stalk each other warily.

Korea was once invaded and divided by outside powers as though we were mere pawns on some big chessboard. Today, whether we like it or not, Korea is caught yet again in a web of complex geostrategic considerations of its neighbors and the United States. There will be no winners, only losers, should war break out again. The current prosperity of the region, the envy of the world, will vaporize in a flash.

Third, North Korea is ruled by a dictatorship, which, as we have witnessed throughout history, is not sustainable in the long run. The spirit of the people resists suppression. It yearns to be free, to enjoy freedom of speech, thought and movement. North Korean rulers have seen the march of history as the once colonized attained independence and as military juntas were overturned by the people in South America, in Africa and throughout Asia. Moreover, across the Socialist bloc, the preeminent role of the Communist Party has given way to multiparty elections, glasnost and perestroika. Eventually the North Korean regime will have to face its own Korean Spring. It is only a matter of time.

North Korea is nestled amid great powers whose economies are critical to global prosperity. An unstable North Korea threatens Northeast Asia’s stability, and creates an uncertain environment for businesses considering investments and joint ventures in the Korean peninsula, including the Rason and Tumen areas, which are vital to the North Korean economy. Above all, parents wonder if their children can grow and learn in peace and security.

Fourth, the insecurity brought about at once by the division of Korea, the historical animosities and legacies, and North Korea’s military dictatorship is further aggravated by the deepening humanitarian crisis. Just within the past few weeks, North Korea asked Mongolia for food aid and five United Nations agencies operating in North Korea issued an urgent appeal for $29.4 million to meet the most critical health and nutrition needs for the next eight months. The UN warned that some 16 million people remain chronically food insecure. With a chronic deficit in medicine and medical supplies, the health care services are unable to meet the population’s basic needs, and infrastructure such as water and heating systems desperately require repair. Health experts believe that an entire generation of North Koreans is malnourished. North Koreans therefore experience a triple jeopardy: dictatorship, widespread human rights violations and chronic food shortages and malnutrition.

The political impasse of the North Korean situation is unacceptable because it creates insecurity, instability and uncertainty, all of which exact a severe psychological toll on our people and a drain on our resources that we can ill afford.

Some policymakers argue that one should not negotiate with dictatorships and that they should be allowed to collapse through internal uprising and external encouragement. Korea’s geopolitical position and Northeast Asia’s economic prosperity can ill afford chaos that may lead to military adventurism. Negotiations and broad engagement should be attempted.

In our own lifetime we have seen dramatic reversals of attitudes and policies: witness the way the international community came to welcome into its fold leaders like Yasser Arafat and Nelson Mandela, together with the liberation movements they had led. China, long ostracized, now has a permanent seat in the United Nations and on the Security Council.

I am therefore seeking a new direction in my country’s North Korea policy. Lack of trust is a major factor that has undermined attempts at genuine reconciliation between North and South Korea. To be sure, North Korea has disregarded international norms. Precisely because mutual confidence is at a low point these days, South Korea has a chance to rebuild that trust. I have proposed a policy of “trustpolitik” that seeks to transform the Korean peninsula from a zone of conflict into a zone of trust, and to establish mutually binding expectations based on international norms. To ensure consistency and stability, trustpolitik should be applied from issue to issue based on verifiable actions, and steps should not be taken for mere political expediency.

The division of Korea, soon to be seventy years, lies at the vortex of multiple issues to be resolved in our region. South Korea and North Korea must forge a respectful partnership in creating the necessary political atmosphere conducive for nations to cooperate constructively in solving the seemingly intractable issues in Northeast Asia.

As a first step in my effort to reestablish trust on the Korean peninsula, I would like to announce today my willingness to meet anywhere and anytime with Kim Jong Un to discuss any and all issues that can put us on a path to peace and stability. Our respective predecessors met at times of great tension. In order to break the present spiral of threats and reprisals, I am prepared to meet with the North Korean leader as soon as possible without preconditions.

A summit would be an important turning point in our relationship. It would be a first step in pursuing a “Northeast Asian Peace and Cooperation Initiative” geared specifically to addressing the quandaries that we face. This new policy will be an alignment policy, undergirded by public consensus and will remain constant regardless of domestic political transitions and unexpected international turmoil.

My inspiration comes from the Helsinki Process of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe. In the height of the Cold War, 35 Heads of State or Government signed the Helsinki Final Act on August 1, 1975. Overcoming ideological competition, these leaders set up a process to discuss and implement security, cooperation in economics, science and technology and environment, and cooperation in humanitarian fields.

However, first and foremost, Northeast Asia urgently needs a comprehensive approach to deal with the politico-military dimension of security—not just its manifestations like North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs—in order to work out mechanisms for conflict prevention and resolution. Essential ingredients must include trust-building measures such as the promotion of greater openness, transparency and cooperation among states. This implies that all countries in the region must welcome each other at the negotiating table with respect.

These steps should help Northeast Asia embark on a path of reconciliation and a more sustainable peace on the Korean peninsula. As leaders and decision-makers, you and I must exercise our solemn duty and responsibility to foster and nurture conditions conducive for enduring peace and economic development. Whether we like it or not, our destinies are intertwined. The globalization and interdependence of our economies, the military alliances and friendship treaties that exist, our capacity to do serious harm to one another with ever more dangerous weapons, the modern weaponry that have range and pinpoint accuracy, all suggest that good neighborly relations, rather than military confrontation, will pay high dividends.

I invite you to partner me in a joint pursuit for a lasting peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula. None of us can do it alone, but with your support, we can succeed.

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